Pilot project highlights homelessness, more needed

By Chris Ferguson

A couple supported by the Ottawa mission in the ByWard Market. Photo provided courtesy of the Ottawa Mission.

Advocates for Ottawa’s homeless hope a new nationwide research project will help people get off the city’s streets.

The $110 million pilot project, led by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, will study the relationship between mental illness and homelessness.

“We’re hopeful that their research will demonstrate what those of us who work in the field already know,” said Marion Wright, chair of Ottawa’s local Alliance to End Homelessness.

The project will provide 1,325 homeless Canadians with supportive housing to determine how best to help people who are homeless and suffering from mental illness. The participants will live on their own but receive regular visits from counsellors and maintain contact with support services.

The cities of Moncton, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver will take part, and the project will run until 2013.

Wright said although the study doesn’t include Ottawa, the need for supportive housing is dire in the city. She says Ottawa’s waiting list for this type of housing has 2,600 names on it, but there are currently only 915 spaces. The pilot project is a great thing, she said, but it just scratches the surface of the need.

And Wright is worried about the economic situation, especially in light of today’s report that unemployment numbers in Ontario are going up again. While her organization hasn’t compiled numbers for 2009, it projects Ottawa will see “substantially more homelessness” once the numbers are in.

Without discounting the importance of housing for the mentally ill, which she called a “critical dimension” of recovery, Wright highlighted the fact that last year 79 per cent of those accessing shelters were not suffering from pervasive mental illness or addiction. They were on the margins in a housing market where affordable apartments remain out of reach for many, and don’t need supporting housing, just housing, period.

Once a person slides into homelessness, of course, it’s harder to get out. Still, those 79 per cent spent less than sixty days in a shelter last year, so many manage to struggle their way out, staying with friends or in substandard housing.

Robert Potvin was hanging out on the steps of Operation Come Home, a support centre for homeless youth, on Tuesday. He said he’s been homeless before, and added that the problem can be compounded when people suffer from addictions.

Potvin said that supports are there, but “you have to go out and take the initiative.” For example, Ontario Works paid his last month’s rent if he could pay the first. Where did he come up with the money? Panhandling, he said, and “some of us sell drugs.”

Wright said the number of youth and families spending time in shelters has been rising particularly. Last year 1,179 children spent time in shelters with their families, an increase from 907 the year before. “That’s atrocious in this country,” Wright said, and though she worries numbers like that will continue to rise, she said the Mental Health Commission’s pilot project is hopeful news that awareness of the problem is growing in Canada.

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